Scott Skey hates the word “catering”. “But until we find a more poetic and still succinct descriptor, catering is what we do,” says the effervescent New York chef. The word “canapé”, however, he’s all for, and the party-food snacks are the bread and butter of Bite, the business he launched in 2004. “For me, ‘canapé’ has more grace than ‘hors d’oeuvre’,” says Skey. “Both have a ’60s and ’70s feel – and invariably back then both referred to some kind of cheese ball – but I like the old-fashioned associations.”
Not that Bite’s canapés are at all passé. For his illustrious list of clients – from Gucci and Fendi to MoMA, and “some very, very wonderful private people”, including Hugh Jackman and Candice Bergen – Skey might proffer a mélange of prime-aged steak tartare, Parmesan sabayon, sea urchin and white truffle; or his seasonal soupçon of sea scallop and winter citrus, served on a coupe of daikon. “Anything with octopus is popular, especially when charred and caramelised, and the little black dress of canapés is the Beggar’s Purse,” says Skey of the one-bite (which is the first rule of traditional canapé construction; the second, that it must be 100 per cent edible, so no skewers) confection of caviar and crème fraîche, wrapped in a crêpe and tied with a chive.
Caviar frequently tops the canapé charts. “We made citrus-cured seabass on blinis with oscietra caviar and crème fraiche for the Crown Prince of Bahrain,” says Mini Vohra, founder and managing director of London’s Cornucopia Events, whose all-out star-studded shindigs run from Heidi Klum’s Halloween party to the Baftas. In Los Angeles, a Dom Pérignon event demanded Prunier St James Caviar from London, served on bite-sized buckwheat blinis by über-caterer Kathleen Schaffer.
“If you want to make caviar great, you have to go for it in a big way,” says Margot Henderson, co-founder with Melanie Arnold of London’s Rochelle Canteens and fêted catering firm Arnold & Henderson. “For a birthday recently we ordered four 1,000g tins of Imperial Oscietra caviar and guests simply dipped teaspoons straight into it, with crème fraîche and potato crisps.” Among the duo’s other most sought-after appetisers are fried salt-cod fritters; devilled Devonshire crab; radishes and smoked cod roe; and roast new potatoes in truffle butter. “It’s always good to get a few white truffles and shave them over the top. There is a certain giddy musk that hits the air and everything just goes crazy, like when we did a Sarah Lucas dinner at Sadie Coles’ gallery.”
For festive flavour, Schaffer suggests minuscule empanadas stuffed with sweet potatoes, roasted turkey, sausage and sage gravy; Paris fashion-favourite Butard Enescot focuses on simple compositions of stellar seasonal products, such as Brittany lobster or Scottish smoked salmon; while LVMH-endorsed, London-New York outfit Rhubarb is currently working on a morsel of pine-infused pigeon, evocatively served on a pine-tree branch. “We work with chefs like Angela Hartnett and Simon Rogan, and recently did a mega event at the Royal Albert Hall, with a three-Michelin-starred chef, for a big luxury brand,” says head of event planning Gemma Bacon. “We take clients on a creative journey.” Thus soy- and wasabi-infused tuna is coated in gold leaf – as served at an ultra-lavish wedding at Blenheim Palace – and a party can morph into an enchanted forest, with waiters dressed as badgers overseeing a raclette stand and a dessert station of hanging bauble treats.
Skey also adds theatricality into the mix, and for the recent Highline Hat Party in New York served canapés out of self-fashioned headdresses. “For particularly daring hosts,” says Skey, “we have created composed landscapes showcasing interrelated, relatively simple bites.” The move towards more interactive food experiences has also been noted by fellow New Yorker Laila Gohar, who describes herself as an artist and chef, and has created “mobile food installations” for Google and edible “sugar sculptures” for Tiffany & Co. “Luxury is no longer white-glove service,” she says. “It’s more about experience. The more participatory, the more meaningful.”
A more tangible trend is for vegan options. One of Schaffer’s favourites is a spiced chickpea panisse with apricot chutney and sauce verte, while Rocket, supplier to Tate and the Royal Academy, suggests its radish and celeriac pockets with honey and hazelnut tartare, or the new Oysterless Oyster canapé, which is apparently as sharp and salty as its seafood counterpart. But it’s requests for carbohydrate-free canapés that are a stumbling block for supper-club veteran Laura Jackson, who recently launched lifestyle brand Hoste with a dinner in a north London vineyard. “Something ridiculous like a pickled vegetable lettuce cup just won’t do. Canapés really need to be hearty and heavy, to soak up the booze.”